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THE THIRD MAN – Anton Karas


Original Review by Craig Lysy

English novelist Graham Greene became intrigued by post war events unfolding in Europe and decided to write a suspense novella titled “The Third Man”. Unlike his previous novels, he intended for this latest effort to serve as source material for a film noir screenplay set in post WWII Vienna. As part of his research, he met Elizabeth Montagu in Vienna, who served as a tour guide for traditional landmarks, but also its renowned sewers and unsavory night clubs. She introduced him to Peter Smolka, the European correspondent for the Times, who provided him with stories of Vienna’s underbelly of black markets. The tours and tales were invaluable and inspired Greene to write one of the finest stories in his career. Well he had no problem selling his handiwork, and a legendary collaboration of talent joined together to produce the film, which included Alexander Korda, David O. Selznick and Carol Reed, who was also tasked with directing. A fine cast was assembled, which included Joseph Cotton as Holly Martins, Alida Valli as Anna Schmidt, Orson Welles as Harry Lime and Trevor Howard as Major Calloway. Reed had a vision for the film and brought in Austrian expressionist cinematographer Robert Krasker who would use harsh lighting and “Dutch Angle” camera technique to create an avant-garde atmospheric black-and-white viewing experience.

The story is set in post WWII Vienna at the dawn of the Cold War and offers classic film noir mystery. American pulp Western writer Holly Martins arrives in Vienna at the invitation of Harry Lime, his childhood friend who has offered him a job. He is dismayed when he is told that Harry had been struck by a car and died. When he meets Harry’s girlfriend Anna Schmidt, he senses from her that all is not right. He becomes suspicious of Harry’s death and decides to remain in Vienna to uncover the truth. What he discovers is that Harry was involved in the illicit selling of diluted penicillin on the black market, which has led to the deaths of many children from meningitis. As his investigation gets closer to the truth, dark forces are unleashed, which put his life in peril. The eventual discovery that Harry has feigned his death and is alive leads to a confrontation in which Harry threatens Holly yet escapes before he can be captured. With Harry’s nefarious nature now exposed, Holly agrees to assist Major Calloway in setting a trap to arrest Harry. Their plan entraps Harry, yet he escapes into the sewers only to be cornered by waiting police. In desperation he shoots Sargent Paine, yet he is badly wounded and his escape up a ladder to the surface barred by a heavy street grating he cannot lift. In the end, Holly shoots Harry with Paine’s gun to save his life. The film was a modest commercial success, earning $1.23 million for a profit of $448,000. It was however a massive critical success with universal praise from critics. The film secured three Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Film Editing, and Best Cinematography, winning one award for Best Cinematography. Despite winning just one Oscar, its legacy was ensured as it is considered to be one of the finest in the Film Noir genre, and one of the greatest films of all time thanks to its atmospheric cinematography, outstanding acting of its ensemble cast and avant-garde film score.

Carol Reed’s vision for the film not only called for unique avant-garde cinematography, but he also chose to eschew the acoustic sounds of the traditional orchestra and predictable use of Viennese waltzes. He experienced serendipity one night when he discovered during dinner with his actors the unique sounds of an instrument called a zither, being performed by a local musician named Anton Karas. The zither is a multi-stringed instrument from the guitar family of instruments. It is played by plucking, with fingers or by use of a plectrum, strummed with a bow, or beat with special little hammers. Unlike its cousin the guitar, the zither lacks a neck. The melancholia emoted by musician Karas was exactly the type of sound Reed wanted for his film, and negotiations began in earnest in the restaurant after fellow patrons assisted with translating, as Karas only spoke German. Karas had never written for film, but Reed convinced him to take the assignment. He brought him to London, had him stay at his house and spent the next six weeks collaborating to achieve his perfect soundscape. To help Karas better understand the film, Reed had the dialogue translated into German. The score’s iconic main theme arose from a tune, which had long been part of Karas’ repertoire. Its adaptation and introduction in the rolling of the opening credits captured the audience and reeled them into the picture. Indeed the “Harry Lime Theme” became an instant sensation, with its single selling 500,000 records in the upcoming weeks. It would go on to spend eleven weeks at number one on Billboard’s US Best Sellers in Stores chart, and its success ushered in a new business model of releasing film music themes as singles.

In terms of themes, there is just one, the Harry Lime Theme, which serves as the identity of Harry Lime, as the film is essentially focused from start to finish on him. It serves as the score’s primary theme and has gained Anton Karas immortality, taking its place in the hallowed halls of the Pantheon of great cinematic themes. It is pervasive throughout the film and emoted by a zither, displaying at once both determination and nonchalance. Its carefree cadence is infectious and the energy it provides the film’s narrative significant, yet there is also a subtle sadness to be found in the notes. It has multiple phrases and offers an ABCA construct, with Karas utilizing the phrases separately or combined. The A Phrase offers a union of opposites in that it is both determined yet nonchalant. The B Phrase is decidedly more energetic and more expressive, while the C Phrase is unabashedly animated and playful. The theme is remarkably adaptable and functions well in a multiplicity of settings, whether they be Vienna’s grand boulevards, cafes or darker underside. There are a number of set pieces Karas created for the film, but none of theme constitute a recurring thematic identity. Now about the album, James Fitzpatrick chose to include six dialogue tracks within the album for the purpose of story-telling. They are discreet, all less than a minute, and do not intrude into any of the musical cues. I will not include these dialogue passages in my review, instead focusing on the music.

We open with “Big Ben”, which supports the London Film logo. A closeup of the Big Ben clock tower at 11:00 am is seen with the sounds of its classic tolling. “The Harry Lime Theme offers a score highlight where Karas perfectly captures the film’s emotional core. It supports the roll of the opening credits and provides us with a wonderful full extended rendering of the theme. We open with the determined yet nonchalant A Phrase, transition at 00:45 into the energetic and more expressive B Phrase, and then at 1:08 into the animated and playful C Phrase, and then concluding as we began with a reprise of the A Phrase. “Harry’s False Funeral” reveals Holly’s arrival in Vienna by train. He travels to Harry’s apartment, only to be told by Karl, Harry’s porter, that he is ten minutes too late, and that the funeral party had departed. He states that he saw Harry killed with his own eyes on the street in front of the apartment. Karas’ supports the several scenes with his most expansive rendering of the Main Theme, with all phrases expressed with a number of permutations in expression and rhythm. Holly travels to the cemetery where the burial service is unfolding. Harry’s Theme however does not assume the expected funereal auras, but maintains its usual energy and expressiveness, a subtle allusion that Harry is not dead, but instead quite alive. At 4:21 the theme softens and slows as Holly tosses dirt on the coffin and is later approached by Major Calloway, who offers him a ride back to town, which he accepts. The Harry’s Theme carries their journey back to town and eventually to a bar, after Holly accepts Calloway’s offer of a drink, unaware that his purpose is to use the alcohol to loosen Holly’s lips and gain information regarding Harry. Music is dialed out of the bar scene as the men drink and we see Holly becoming drunk. When Calloway discloses that he is a police officer, Holly becomes combative, is punched by Sergeant Paine to subdue him, and then taken by Paine to his hotel room.

“The Café Mozart Waltz” offers a score highlight, which showcases Karas’ talents. Holly receives a call from Baron Kurtz who states he was a friend of Harry’s and wishes to talk to him. Holly agrees to meet him at the Café Mozart. They discuss Harry and the Baron offers his advice, which Holly decides to accept. Karas supports the scene wonderfully, perfectly capturing the ambiance of the café with one of the score’s finest compositions, which emotes with the classic sensibilities and cadence of a Viennese waltz. They depart and walk to the site where Harry was killed, which the Baron describes in great detail. They agree to meet later and Holly seeks to find Harry’s girlfriend to obtain more information. “Holly Encounters Anna/Meeting The Conspirators” reveals him attending a play, in which she is a member. She agrees to speak to him after the play, and receives him in her dressing room. She provides insight into Harry’s death, but with a strange detachment. She agrees to accompany him to Harry’s apartment and are joined by Karl, who he interrogates. Karl relates that that three men carried Harry’s body away, not the two detailed in the police report. Two men were known friends of Harry, but the third man’s identity was unknown. Anna continues to be strangely unaffected and detached, while Karl becomes hostile when Holly insists, he provide the police with this new information. Karas supports the scene with another free-flowing set piece, which emotes with gentility but also at times intensity as Karl becomes tense and angry. Throughout there are subtle auras of mystery as we see in Holly’s eyes the revelation that Harry death was not an accident. In “Holly is Accused of Homicide” Holly escorts her home to her apartment only to be warned by the house maid that the police were searching her apartment. She reluctantly decides to go up and speak to them, joined by Holly. Inside Calloway and his men are searching her apartment, seize her forged papers and love letters from Harry, and then arrest her on suspicion of homicide. At the police station her forged passport is analyzed by the Russians, her letters are returned and she is released. After Anna is released Holly takes her to a club where they are joined by the Baron and his friend Popsecu – the two men present when Harry died. When Holly asks who was the third man, Popsecu denies there was one, and then says cryptically that people need to be careful when in Vienna. The scene cut’s out and we see him making a telephone call, where he sets up a meeting at a bridge. It is here that the music resumes. The music is energetic and carries the Baron and Popsecu to a bridge where they join two other men in conversation. At 1:03 we change scenes to Holly walking on the street below Harry’s apartment. The music softens and then begins a stepped crescendo using an ostinato pattern, which climaxes when Karl shouts from the window to join him tonight as his wife will be out. Holly agrees and departs. As Karl closes the window and turns at 1:57 his expression freezes with fear in his eyes, which Karas supports with a new energetic line, which belies what we see on the screen.

The music for the next four film scenes is not found on the album. In “Holly And Anna” Holly joins Anna at her apartment. She is depressed and asks him to tell some tales of Harry when they were young. Holly relates that Harry was very smart, could fix anything and even tried to steal his girl. Karas supports the dialogue softly with the zither providing a gentle nondescript ambiance. In “Karl’s Death” they decide to go out for a drink but as they pass by Harry’s apartment, they learn that Karl has been murdered. They are uncomfortable and run from the scene pursued by a screaming little boy who alerts the crowd to their presence. Karas propels their flight with a carnivalesque flair, which again seems incongruous with the danger and their palpable fear. They take cover in a movie theater where Holly asks Anna to remain while he investigates. “Holly Escapes” reveals his entry at a hotel to obtain Major Calloway’s number, which they do not have. A taxi offers him a lift, which he accepts, only to find himself kidnapped as the driver speeds through town with him locked in the back seat. The harrowing drive is not supported musically. He arrives and to his surprise it is the literary club where he was scheduled to give a speech. He is ill prepared, boars the crowd to tears, and they soon begin leaving to the moderator’s dismay. Popsecu arrives and queries him regarding his latest book, which Holly declares is titled “The Third Man”. Popsecu makes subtle threats of the danger of mixing fact and fiction, and is joined by two ominous men. Holly senses the danger and bolts with the two men in pursuit. He manages to elude them in the darkly lite streets of Vienna, finding refuge in the police station with Major Calloway. Karas supports the chase with energetic flight music in the form of an ascending stepped crescendo. In “Harry’s Crimes Exposed” Major Calloway illuminates Holly to Harry’s racketeering of diluted penicillin, which has led to the deaths of many men, women and children. As he sees the evidence presented on film Karas’ zither emotes with irony and subtle dissonance as Holly realizes that his friend was not a decent man. He departs and is instructed by Calloway to go to his hotel for safety, but instead heads for the nightclub.

“Holly Brings Flowers” offers a wonderful score highlight. Holly has arrived at the club where we see him receiving his second round. Latin source music provides a festive ambiance. He thinks of Anna, buys some flowers and sets off to her apartment. He informs her that he wants to say his goodbyes as he will be leaving in the morning. They discuss how they both were fooled by Harry and we see a nascent attraction unfolding. Karas graces us with the score’s most romantic music. As they continue to converse the music shifts at 4:53 to a danza felice as we see them enjoying this special moment together. In “Holly Runs After Harry’s Shadow” Holly is walking home inebriated and bellows out at a dark figure standing across the square in the shadows. He wakes the neighbors and is startled when lights come on that illuminate the face of Harry Lime. Harry’s Theme supports the remarkable revelation, yet when he runs towards him, he disappears. Holly is perplexed and a soft and illusive Harry’s Theme supports his befuddlement until he hears running footfalls on the cobblestone street. At 1:17 an intensification cadence supports his chasing Harry, who manages to elude him. Holly brings Calloway to the scene who dismisses his story until they discover an entry staircase in the square, which descends into the sewers. A 1:37 Harry’s Theme returns as Calloway now suspects that Holly’s account may be truthful and orders Harry’s body exhumed. At 2:27 the music swells and crests as the lid is opened and reveals the body of the hospital’s orderly who worked for Harry. At 3:04 the music assumes Russian auras as the Russian police depart to arrest Anna and repatriate her back to the Soviet Sector. At 4:07 the music intensifies on a stepped crescendo as Holly who is exiting the police station sees Anna being escorted in. The music for “Holly And Harry Meet” is not provided on the album. Holly goes to the Baron’s building and finds him on the balcony with Dr. Winkle. He tells them to their great surprise that he wants to meet Harry and points to the Wiener Reisenrad Ferris wheel as the place. As Holly waits at the Ferris wheel we are graced with an extended rendering of Harry’s Theme, which eventually supports Harry’s arrival. His greeting is warm and friendly, and the two board an enclosed cart to have a private conversation. The theme dissipates as they discuss Harry’s ‘death’, and Anna’s incarceration, which Harry seems to be singularly uninterested. Things become tense when Harry makes veiled threats against Holly for revealing that he is still alive. Harry departs with uncertainty carried by his theme as he states his job offer still stands and would like to meet again – without the police.

“Trap to catch Harry” reveals Calloway soliciting Holly’s aid in apprehending Harry. He initially refuses, but when he sees Anna’s passport on his desk agrees. Karas supports the scene with the zither clearly channeling traditional Greek auras. Later at the train station we see Anna leaving Vienna with a proper passport. She sees Holly, leaves the train and they argue, she demanding to know why he helped her and if he was working with Calloway. He confesses that they are setting Harry up, and we see anger in her eyes as she tears up her passport and declares she does not want his help. Holly is stung by her rebuke. He travels to the police station, backs out of the deal and demands his plane ticket to leave. Calloway acquiesces and give him a ride, but first stops at the hospital. He invites Holly to witness the suffering caused by Harry’s handiwork, with the zither emoting palpable sadness. Holly is swayed and agrees to resume his part as a decoy. He waits at a restaurant, with mounting tension as we see police placed strategically at many street corners. At 1:27 Karas introduces a rubato using a danza felice to support the arrival of Harry, only to discover instead a man walking with balloons. Anna arrives and demands to know how long he will be waiting as we again see an old man walking with balloons. At 2:18 Harry’s Theme announces his arrival atop ruins overlooking the square. As Anna rebukes Holly as an informer, Harry walks in and pulls out a pistol, but the entry of Sergeant Paine causes him to flee instead. He descends into the sewers in a desperate attempt to escape. Dozens of police descend and yet Harry continues to elude capture. Holly eventually finds Harry, begs him to give himself up, only to see him shoot Sergeant Paine. As Harry flees, he is shot and mortally wounded by Major Calloway. Harry crawls up a stairwell to escape, but lacks the strength to push open the heavy metal grate. The sewer chase is unscored until Holly confronts Harry at the stairwell, when a beleaguered Harry’s Theme resumes as the two men lock eyes. As Major Calloway runs towards them a shot is heard, and Holly steps into view, having just killed Harry. We shift scenes atop a sad rendering of Harry’s Theme as we witness his burial, with Anna tossing dirt on the casket. “Anna Walks Away” reveals her departure without gazing at, or speaking to Holly. As Calloway drives Holly to the airport, he asks him to stop so he may speak to Anna. Yet she ignores him, and walks past him without flinching. Karas supports the film’s close with a zither doloroso that speaks of opportunities lost, and regrets. At 1:38 we segue into “End Title” for a wonderful final full extended reprise of Harry’s Theme. Lastly, the four bonus cues are quite enjoyable and I encourage you to explore them.

I wish to commend James Fitzpatrick and Silva America for this outstanding, long sought re-recording of Anton Karas’ unique score to The Third Man. With the exception of the Harry Lime Theme and the Café Mozart Waltz, all of Karas’ music had to be reconstructed as he improvised while recording the score from his repertoire and left no sheet music. The score’s restoration performed by Gareth Williams is nothing short of remarkable, as was the performance of the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Nic Raine, and Gertrud Huber’s magnificent mastery of the zither. Carol Reed sought an unconventional means to score his film and eschewed the traditional orchestra, instead opting for the unique acoustics of a zither. Never before had such an approach been attempted, and I commend him for his audaciousness, creativity, and innovation. In a masterstroke Karas captured the film’s emotional core with Harry Lime’s Theme, which allowed Reed to realize his vision. The score’s conception was executed by largely using juxtaposition, with Karas often emoting in a manner not apparently congruent with the actor’s emotions. Sometimes this worked as in “Harry’s False Funeral”, sometimes it did not as in the death scene of “Karl’s Death”. Nevertheless, despite these imperfections the score brought continuity to the film’s narrative. Anton Karas had but a single opus, yet I believe he made an invaluable contribution to film score art, one that encouraged future composers to utilize a single instrument to score a film – the synthesizer scores of Moroder and Vangelis come to mind. I believe “The Third Man” to be a rare and unique film score worthy of any collector’s library. I highly recommend you purchase this finely crafted album for your collection as it provides a truly unique listening experience.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a link to the famous Harry Lime Theme: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GO_FiLt0q_U

Buy the Third Man soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Big Ben (London Films) (0:18)
  • The Harry Lime Theme (2:21)
  • Dialogue – “It’s a Shame” (0:14)
  • The Café Mozart Waltz (2:25)
  • Main Title – Harry’s False Funeral (5:59)
  • Dialogue – “Heard of Harry Lime?” (0:09)
  • Holly Encounters Anna/Meeting the Conspirators (3:02)
  • Dialogue – “The Third Man” (0:35)
  • Holly is Accused of Homicide (2:32)
  • Dialogue – “This Isn’t Santa Fe” (0:21)
  • Holly Brings Flowers (6:15)
  • Holly Runs After Harry’s Shadow (4:56)
  • Dialogue – “Holly, What Fools We Are” (0:46)
  • Trap to Catch Harry (3:34)
  • Dialogue – “The Cuckoo Clock” (0:24)
  • Anna Walks Away/End Title – The Harry Lime Theme (4:11)
  • Visions of Vienna (1:59) BONUS
  • Danube Dreams (2:20) BONUS
  • The Harry Lime Theme (Orchestral Version) (2:35) BONUS
  • The Café Mozart Waltz (Orchestral Version) (3:16) BONUS

Running Time: 48 minutes 12 seconds

Silva America SILCD-1151 (1949/2003)

Music composed by Anton Karas. Conducted by Nic Raine. Performed by The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra featuring Gertrud Huber. Score produced by Anton Karas. Album produced by James Fitzpatrick.

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